Downtown library reimagined for Banned Books Week

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (KCTV) – If you’ve ever passed by the giant bookshelf painted on the Kansas City Public Library’s downtown parking garage, you know it’s a collection of classics. You might not know that a third of the featured books have been challenged or banned at one time or another.

This week, for Banned Books Week the Kansas City Public Library is hammering home that point with a banner below the books showing the row in miniature with a red x over each one that has been banned or challenged somewhere in the world. People passing by are taking notice.

“It caught my attention. It stopped me,” said Sean Colvin as he was walking home from work. “It’s sad people trying to control other people’s pursuit of education and knowledge.”

“Like ‘Lord of the Rings?’ And like ‘Winnie-the-Pooh?'” remarked Ramsey McMullin of the titles that surprised them most.

“Lord of the Rings” was burned outside a New Mexico church in 2001 along with other Tolkien novels, considered to be satanic.

In 2003, the library wrote, a middle school in England removed “Winnie-the-Pooh,” among other books, out of concern that any book featuring pigs could be offensive to Muslim students. The Muslim Council on Britain formally requested the books be returned, calling the school’s policy “well intended but misguided.”

The library’s website includes an explanation for each book on the painted display.

The clamor to remove certain books from library shelves cycles. Banned Books Week was created 40 years ago, in 1982, “in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries.”

The cycle is moving up in this decade. The American Library Association counted 1,597 challenges or removals in 2021, more than the previous four years combined, according to the Kansas City Public Library.

“I think it’s just something that’s a really relevant topic right now,” said Lacie Griffin, the collection development manager for the Johnson County Library.

Griffin joined librarians from Kansas City, Cass County and Kansas City Public Schools for a roundtable discussion on the topic at the Plaza branch library Thursday night. About 100 people attended. The librarians discussed how they select what to put on their shelves and what the process entails to reconsider what’s available or where it should be placed.

“What we really try to do is to make sure that everyone’s represented and that anybody, no matter who they are, can come into a library and be able to find something that mirrors themselves plus also is a window to the greater world,” said Griffin.

One topic discussed was Missouri’s SB775, a law spearheaded by Cass County Republican Senator Rick Brattin. It criminalizes keeping books with certain sexual images on school bookshelves.

Rebecca Marcum Parker, a librarian at KCPS’s East High School explained why she thinks what offends some people is so important to keep.

“Books exist in part to make everyone feel okay about ourselves. And my real concern about book challenges and removing books is that there’s a student or a patron out there who needs that book to feel okay about themselves,” said Parker.

The librarians said there is a firm to fill out when requesting a book be removed or relocated. It includes a question about whether the person making the request has read the book in its entirety. Griffin said on 75% of the forms she receives, the answer is “no.”

Parker attributed that to the rise of social media, which she said makes the requests swell.

“We had another round of book banning, book challenges, in the 1980s,” she said. “The big difference between then and now is social media and that ability to create an echo chamber for yourself and to spread ideas much more quickly,” Parker said.

The group of librarians said the challenges they get are about equally split by those on the left and the right side of the political spectrum.

Narrowing only to those on the American Library’s 100 Best Novels list yields 46 titles that have been challenged.

Several of them were challenged in the Kansas City metro as recently as 2007. That’s when a parent in Olathe Public Schools failed in an attempt to have John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” removed from the 9th-grade curriculum, calling it a “worthless , profanity-riddled book” which is “derogatory towards African Americans, women and the developmentally disabled.”

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